Proteas expected to set the pace
South Africa seem to be the favoured choice to win the sixth edition of the biannual ICC Champions Trophy which gets under way in the country next week – almost three years after the last one in 2006.
The Proteas, who begin proceedings against Sri Lanka in Pretoria on Tuesday, have been installed as favourites to claim victory in the tournament, initially scheduled to be held in Pakistan last year.
The Asian nation first saw the dates put back due to security fears, before more similar problems led to several countries threatening to withdraw.
The International Cricket Council then postponed the competition by 12 months and, after another review, decided to shift it to South Africa – the country that also stood in to host the second edition of the Indian Premier League earlier this year because of safety fears.
Now, after a long break, the tournament is back and the top eight competing countries will all be hoping to make an impression on the 50-over game, which is fast losing its appeal to its sister Twenty20 format.
The home side, who have risen to the top of the Test and one-day international rankings over the past 12 months, are the number one choice to win the title, at least according to the captains of Sri Lanka and New Zealand – Kumar Sangakkara and Daniel Vettori respectively.
“South Africa are going into this tournament as favourites,” Sangakkara said. “Australia also have a good chance and have probably regained a lot of lost pride by the way they've been playing in the ODI series (against England, who they lead 6-0), after losing the Ashes.
“But I think the semi-finals might throw up some surprises.”
Vettori said: “There is no doubt that everybody will be focusing on the South Africans as they are the best side in the world. They are playing brilliantly at the moment, have no obvious weaknesses in their squad and will be familiar with the conditions.
“It will all count in their favour.”
Pakistan captain Younus Khan begged to differ, saying: “All the teams are equally balanced so I don't like to make any predictions, but in such a tight competition one bad day is enough to put a team out of the tournament.
“So we will have to play out of our skins in every match.”
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose India side face Pakistan in the pick of opening round matches, preferred to concentrate on his own side rather than reflect too much on the others.
He said: “We are in a tough group so it would be important not to allow any slip ups and perform well right from the beginning.”
The other two sides in Group A are Australia and West Indies, while Group B is made up of South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and New Zealand. Each team will play the other in the group with the top two advancing to the semi-final.
There will also be plenty of spark missing from the tournament with England duo Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff along with India’s Virender Sehwag all out through injury.
More notably, though, is the absence of the entire West Indies first-team, who are involved in a contractual rift with their board. Despite the ‘weakened’ team, interim coach David Williams is confident they can still perform.
“I don't think that people should write us off for the Champions Trophy,” he said. “We have a young team and they would be going there to make a name for themselves.
“They may even surprise some people and win some big matches.”
As for the home side, they are desperate to end a 12-year wait for their last and only tournament win under the ICC banner – the 1998 Champions Trophy in Bangladesh.
Graeme Smith said: “Every time we lose an important game the word 'chokers' is thrown around.
“During the last couple of years we have been on an upward curve and the team will improve and grow stronger,” added the captain, whose side have reached the semi-final on every occasion apart from 2004.